City DopeFeaturedNews

Former Prosecutor Will Challenge District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez

Kalki Yalamanchili launched his campaign against District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez on the courthouse steps last Tuesday. Credit: Blake Aued

Controversial Western Circuit District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez drew her first challenger on Tuesday when Athens defense attorney Kalki Yalamanchili announced he will run against her in next November’s election.

In a speech on the steps of the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse, Yalamanchili repeated the oft-leveled criticisms that Gonzalez cannot keep her office fully staffed with qualified prosecutors, and as a result violent criminals and sex offenders are being set free. At the same time, he said that the DA’s office under Gonzalez does not respect victims’ rights, echoing evidence unearthed by Oconee County lawyer Kevin Epps that she has not always kept victims and their families informed. While Gonzalez has said the chronic staff shortage is due to low pay, Yalamanchili contends that assistant DAs have been leaving for less money.

“It is unacceptable to me. It is unacceptable to our community,” Yalamanchili said, characterizing Gonzalez as an “entertainment lawyer and a failed politician” who had no prior criminal justice experience before running for DA to resurrect her political career after losing a seat in the state House of Representatives.

Her opponent in that 2018 House race, Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) was one of the main backers of a bill earlier this year creating the Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission, a panel with the power to sanction or remove DAs. Gaines has also repeatedly criticized Gonzalez for letting defendants walk due to prosecutorial missteps or lack of staff. Gonzalez says the law was a political move to strip power from a wave of recently elected progressive DAs, mostly women of color. 

Yalamanchili told Flagpole that he understands why state legislators felt the need to act, but that he believes the oversight commission is “a distraction,” and that the solution ultimately lies at the ballot box. 

Despite her lack of experience, progressive voters were drawn to Gonzalez in 2020 at least in part because of her pledge not to prosecute nonviolent drug offenses. Yalamanchili told Flagpole he would not continue that policy, instead looking at those cases individually. “There are really good resources like the [drug and alcohol] accountability courts that can really turn people’s lives around,” he said. 

While the election is more than a year away, Yalamanchili is running as an independent, meaning he will have to collect thousands of signatures in order to place his name on the ballot. That will be a challenge, but starting early gives him plenty of time to do so.

“I see it as an opportunity,” he said. “It’s going to keep us honest. We’re going to meet people where they are and get our message out.”

As much criticism as Gonzalez has received—much of it from Republicans—she would still be hard to beat in a Democratic primary. But Athens progressives are often skeptical of candidates who run as independents or won’t explicitly state their party affiliation. 

Yalamanchili, however, said he believes the district attorney’s office should be nonpartisan. “The safety of our community is not a partisan issue,” he said. “Neither is protecting our rights.”

Sara Wise

Yalamanchili grew up in Albany, the son of doctors who immigrated from India. He earned a bachelor’s degree from UGA in 2007 and a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis. Returning to Georgia, he briefly worked as an assistant solicitor prosecuting misdemeanors in Cobb County before spending six years as an ADA under Ken Mauldin, Gonzalez’s predecessor. 

Gonzalez’s election represented a break from Mauldin, who backed his former chief deputy Brian Patterson in 2020. Yalamanchili said he “loved” working for Mauldin but would not necessarily emulate him if elected DA. “Any DA of an office this size has to bring their own personality to the office, and run the office in a way that’s true to them,” he said. 

Currently Yalamanchili shares a law practice with Adam Hebbard. He and his wife Caitlyn, a prosecutor on the nearby Piedmont Circuit, have two sons ages 6 and 4.